Theses on Weatherman
1. I was four months old when the shootout occurred on the New Jersey Turnpike between two state troopers and three Black Liberation Army members including Assata Shakur, an event described with more nuance and less smug sensationalism by Wikipedia than by Rick Perlstein’s Nation review of Bryan Burrough’s new book on American radical left organizations of the late 1960s and 1970s, Days of Rage.
Perlstein: One night in May 1973, a group of BLA soldiers traveling the New Jersey Turnpike were pulled over by troopers. One of the cops discovered an ammunition clip from an automatic pistol. A militant named Joanne Chesimard pulled a gun from beneath her right leg, shooting the cop at point-blank range (he survived). The gun battle that followed (in which another trooper was fatally shot in the head) was the subject of a breathless six-page spread in the next day’s Daily News, which labeled her “the high priestess of the cop-hating Black Liberation Army” and the “black Joan of Arc.” The power of that frisson has not faded. Currently, a group of Berkeley students is demanding that a campus building housing the Department of African-American Studies be renamed after Chesimard’s nom de guerre, Assata Shakur. “We want the renaming [for] someone, Assata Shakur, who we feel…represents us black students,” a spokesman for the Berkeley black student union said.
Wikipedia: Under cross-examination at both Acoli and Shakur’s trials, Trooper Harper admitted to having lied in these reports and in his Grand Jury testimony about Trooper Foerster yelling and showing him an ammunition magazine, about seeing Shakur holding a pocketbook or a gun inside the vehicle, and about Shakur shooting at him from the car. Trooper Harper retracted his previous statements and said that he had never seen Shakur with a gun and that she did not shoot him.
A key element of Shakur’s defense was medical testimony meant to demonstrate that she was shot with her hands up and that she would have been subsequently unable to fire a weapon. A neurologist testified that the median nerve in Shakur’s right arm was severed by the second bullet, making her unable to pull a trigger. Neurosurgeon Dr. Arthur Turner Davidson, Associate Professor of Surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, testified that the wounds in her upper arms, armpit and chest, and severed median nerve that instantly paralyzed her right arm, would only have been caused if both arms were raised, and that to sustain such injuries while crouching and firing a weapon (as described in Trooper Harper’s testimony) “would be anatomically impossible.”
I wasn’t there—I was four months old. But Rick Perlstein wasn’t there either—he was four years old. He’s correct that radical chic wouldn’t be radical chic if it weren’t more concerned with frisson than facts. But what if your facts aren’t the only facts? What if your facts are wrong?
What could be further from radical chic, which, as Tom Wolfe wrote 45 years ago, is only radical in style; in its heart it is part of Society and its traditions. Politics, like Rock, Pop and Camp, has its uses; but to put one’s whole status on the line for nostalgie de la boue in any of its forms would be unprincipled than meaning it and being it?
3. Would Perlstein also refer to Cassius Clay by “his nom de guerre, Muhammad Ali”? Or a transgender man as “her nom de guerre, Bruce”? It may be a minor point, but more broadly speaking, where the Left response to names and nomenclature tends to be “if you want to be known as Muhammad/Caitlyn, I will call you Muhammad/Caitlyn,” the analogous Right response tends to be “that’s silly” at best, degrading nicknames at worst. Joanne Chesimard became Assata Shakur in 1970. Her name is now Assata Shakur. It’s not that difficult.
4. We will call young any individual, no matter what his age, who does not yet coincide with his function, who acts and struggles to attain the realm of activity he truly desires, who fights to achieve a career in terms of a situation and a form of work other than that which has been planned for him…So long as youth suffers in slavery, or is super-exploited by the seniority system, it will hurl itself into all the warlike follies and all the banalities which are permitted it as a compensation for its own non-existence. Those who know and love their places, whether proletarians or capitalists, are passive, because they don’t want to compromise themselves by appearing in the streets…The young, who have nothing to lose, are the attack—indeed, they are adventure.
-Isidore Isou, “Notre programme,” Front de la jeunesse no. 1 (1950), transl. Adam Cornford, quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces (1989)
Our answer is to rely on youth–not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.
-Robert F. Kennedy, 1968, also quoted in Lipstick Traces
They’re kids. Excuse them their ignorance.
5. Perlstein: Have you ever wondered why restrooms are always locked in office buildings? Because in the 1970s, terrorists loved toilets: They frequently locked from within, and the stalls afforded privacy for setting a bomb.
Not exactly. Restrooms are always locked in office buildings because of homeless people. Restrooms are always locked in office buildings because the business of America is security, privatization, militarization, mass incarceration, and the war on terror (none of which are wholly unrelated to poverty), now more than ever. Horrible events no doubt occur and also no doubt create opportunities. 9-11 was real, and scary. So was Weatherman and BLA violence. But our response to 9-11 and Weatherman and BLA violence will always be ours to make, to make better or to make worse. Dylann Roof be damned, we (with exceptions, of course) feel safer with guns, but also with metal detectors, body scanners, and pat-downs. Restrooms somewhere may once have been locked because of terrorism, but restrooms now are locked because we let them be.
6. Weirdest of all is the sex negative tone of Perlstein’s review:
Sex was crucial currency within these circles. At meetings of the SDS, shortly before a radical faction of it became the Weathermen, Bernardine Dohrn “liked to wear a button with the slogan cunnilingus is cool, fellatio is fun,” Burrough writes. A member named Steve Tappis remembered “her blouse open to the navel.” Tappis had had enough. “Finally, I said ‘Bernardine! Would you please button your blouse?’ She just pulled out one of her breasts and, in that cold way of hers, said, ‘You like this tit? Take it.’” (“Weather crud”: n. genital infection incubated among Weather Underground cadres building revolutionary solidarity via compulsory orgies.)
(Hilariously, the next sentence in his review is A voyeuristic media exploited the underground’s glamour. You’ve tried false consciousness, now try unconsciousness!)
A more measured view of the sex in Days of Rage comes from Steve Wasserman’s excellent review in, of all places, The American Conservative, a magazine whose editors elsewhere compare gay marriage opponents to Solzhenitsyn preparing for exile and decry the “cultural lynch mob” that refuses to recognize the “heroism of those who fought and died under” the Confederate flag:
Burrough prefers dynamite and sex… For Burrough, Bernardine Dohrn, a principal organizer and leader of Weatherman, is “the glamorous leading lady of the American underground, unquestionably brilliant, cool, focused, militant, and highly sexual.” The heavy breathing is unmistakable. He’s transfixed by her “tight miniskirt and knee-high Italian boots.” He quotes approvingly one anonymous former member of SDS as remembering, “Every guy I knew at Columbia, every single one, wanted to f–k her.” He is well pleased to recycle David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s Rolling Stone article of more than 30 years ago quoting Mark Rudd as having once remarked that “Power doesn’t flow out of the barrel of a gun, power flows out of Bernardine’s c–t.” The salaciousness is relentless.
Where Wasserman concludes that There isn’t an honest-to-God, flesh-and-blood character in the whole book. Everyone and nearly everything is reduced to cliché and caricature, Perlstein appears to endorse the gratuitous sex as an ad hominem attack on the gratuitous violence.
Obviously, sex can be omnivorous and revolutionary without being violent or salacious or even orgasmic. Contrast the penny dreadful prose of Days of Rage:
[Wasserman:] Burrough tells that when Dohrn was underground, living on a Sausalito houseboat, she liked to clamber to the roof and sunbathe, “sometimes topless.” Burrough can’t resist a flourish: “Overhead, seagulls swooped to and fro.”
with Monique Wittig, in Les Guéríllères (1969) (transl. David Le Vay), describing a tribe of warrior women and their rituals:
They weep, lying down or seated apart. The frost solidifies their tears which shine and sparkle on their cheeks. They weep, their sobs rack their bodies, they can be seen rolling in the snow. There are places where the wind blows white powdery clouds into their faces. Their cries moans lamentations do not rise from the depths. They might just as well be dumb. They do not bring their stiffened hands to their cheeks or their mouths to arrest the flow of blood from their gums. The icy cirque where they stand reflects all the sun’s rays. The waves of light seem to detach themselves from the ground, to rise like flames, to quiver, to turn from red to orange-yellow or from pink to violet. It is like a volcanic crater that burns ready to overwhelm them,
In the light of the fire he sees behind her eyes something moving, something that isn’t Sally at all, the sudden swish of its tail, the slithering flick of evidence inside her of the thing to which she’s abandoned everything of herself but desire. Desire bleeds at her mouth. It ripples to her fingers. She parts her lips to inhale him and take him in her hand. Though he tries to pull away it’s a lie when he tells himself he wants to resist her: he doesn’t want to resist her. Though he tries to pull away it’s a lie when he tells himself she can survive his fucking her: she cannot survive it. She sweeps away resistance as he swept away the web of the iceflies around her bed. She takes him in her hand and drives him up inside her and he hears the response inside, the scamper of something into the swampland; his cock feels the ripple of the marshes.
Or maybe it’s a continuum, Wittig-Erickson-Burrough. Regardless, one wouldn’t expect The Nation on the phobic end no matter its authors.
7. Wasserman also implicitly asks a question missing from Perlstein’s review: where’s COINTELPRO?
Burrough can’t help but hype the story. He quotes a retired FBI agent who claims that in 1972 there were over “nineteen hundred domestic bombings … Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.” But was it? Or was this J. Edgar Hoover pushing his campaign to expose the reds he was convinced were under every bed, reds who had to be rooted out by any means necessary, however illegal? Burrough is not unsympathetic to Hoover’s obsession; he seems to believe that had the FBI not been constrained by the revelations of the bureau’s skullduggery, Hoover’s G-men could have put the kibosh on the crazies who had gone to ground. That can hardly have been the case, however, as the long-running secret FBI campaign to identify and suppress suspected dissenters, COINTELPRO, preceded by many years its exposure by the daring radicals who burgled the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 and the subsequent Church Committee hearings on intelligence, held in 1975. Burrough makes plain his disagreement with the retired agent who told him that “Some of us felt that what the Bureau did constituted a far greater danger to society than what the Weatherman ever did.”
Ron Jacobs has noted that Weatherman was the subject of at least two COINTELPRO investigations following their Days of Rage actions in October 1969. His thorough, thoughtful The Way the Wind Blew quotes the description of COINTELPRO by the writer and civil liberties lawyer Frank Donner as “an undisguised assault by the self-appointed defenders of the American way of life.”
Reviewing Days of Rage for CounterPunch, Jacobs observed:
[Burrough’s] mindset is unwilling to acknowledge that the US imperial culture lacks a humane foundation…Not once in his litany of criminality by radical groups and individuals does Burrough acknowledge the criminality of the system and authorities they opposed.
Would it have been difficult for Burrough to locate what Weatherman or BLA was attempting to do within the ongoing narrative of what COINTELPRO was actually doing, and why? Would it likewise be difficult to hypothesize some degree of infiltration within a radical left organization by a COINTELPRO agent or agents to help discredit or embarrass its members more than they were capable of discrediting or embarrassing themselves? Perhaps the recruitment of Coy Harlingen in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is Santayanan cautionary tale as well as fiction:
[F]inally, one night there he was in a toilet stall at LAX, passing compromising notes on toilet paper under the partition to a state legislator with hidden sexual longings whom the Viggies [Vigilant California, a shadowy pro-Nixon organization] wished to have, as they put it, “on the team.” After this—he guessed—audition, the assignments gradually got more demanding—preparation sometimes included reading Herbert Marcuse and Chairman Mao and the comprehension issues that came along with that, plus daily workouts at a dojo in Whittier, dialect coaching in outer Hollywood, evasive driving lessons out in Chatsworth.
It didn’t take long for Coy to become aware that the patriots who were running him were being run themselves by another level of power altogether, which seemed to feel entitled to fuck with the lives of all who weren’t as good or bright as they were, which meant everybody. Coy learned they’d labeled him an “addictive personality,” betting that once committed to snitching for his country, he would find the life as hard to kick as heroin, if not harder. Pretty soon they had him hanging around campuses—university, community college, and high school—and slowly learning to infiltrate antiwar, antidraft, anticapitalist groups of all kinds.
8. Most fatally to Perlstein’s review, by blaming radical chic (despite never using the phrase) he misses what Cornel West in a different context has referred to as the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning that can explode into nihilistic violence. Weatherman, the BLA, and their fellow travelers and sympathizers can therefore be written off to Trotsky’s dust bin of history as more-radical-than-thou thugs and bullies who murdered out of pure pleasure a la the droogs of Clockwork Orange rather than would-be progressives whose hopelessness turned destructively outward when it wasn’t turning destructively inward.
Perlstein: “All through 1965 and 1966,” Burrough observes, the members of Students for a Democratic Society “peopled myriad civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, hundreds of them, but a kind of malaise soon set in. Every month brought more and larger protests. Yet there seemed to be little improvement in black civil rights, and more American soldiers poured into Southeast Asia every day.” A spiral of militancy resulted…if you were a Marx-minded revolutionary serially disappointed with the stubborn refusal of one designated oppressed class after another—¬blue-collar workers, white students, Third World peasants—to rise up against the machine in precisely the way your theory predicted, where better to turn for salvation than [the American prison system]?
Compare Wasserman’s review, which concludes (maybe a bit too psychospiritually for my taste, but not unsympathetically):
There was at the heart of these “apocalyptic revolutionaries” a hoary notion that revolved around the idea of authenticity: an end to estrangement and the construction of community were constant refrains. The injection of moral passion, with the concomitant suggestion that direct action and the willingness to embrace violent means is the best barometer by which commitment is measured and authenticity confirmed, proved a disaster, as dangerous as it was naïve. These ideas embodied a terrible logic: only by ever grander gestures could the veil of apathy be pierced in an America whose citizens’ political sensibilities had been dulled by the narcotic of consumerism and the relative prosperity derived from being beneficiaries of an imperial behemoth. Politics thus became a form of Gestalt, a species of social psychoanalysis. Its aim was not merely revolution but catharsis.
Or Jeremy Varon’s review in Los Angeles Review of Books, which accuses Burrough of “engage[ing] in idol-smashing that feels mean-spirited” and paying “scant attention to historical context”:
The missing element in his workup of the era’s radical ideology is the critique of imperialism and the global attraction to revolutionary nationalism. This lacuna permits him to say silly things, such as that the underground had nothing to do with the Vietnam War and was solely oriented to promoting the black struggle. Within an anti-imperialist framework — whatever one may think of it — the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination was roughly equivalent to the African American bid for radical autonomy. White revolutionaries bombed sites of military, corporate, and racial power, seeing little tension in the choice of targets. Black and Puerto Rican revolutionaries saw themselves as part of a global, anti-imperialist insurgency. Asian communism, epitomized by the rebellious Vietnamese, held out for American radicals of all colors the promise of an alternative modernity that was at once anticapitalist and antiracist.
As tone-deaf as Burrough to the depth of both radical left organizations’ critiques of US imperialism at home and abroad and their profound frustration at the system’s vast powers to crush revolutionary change, Perlstein can only condemn minor horrors, most, though not all, of them verbal (Bernardine Dohrn’s pro-Manson comments) or abortive or against property rather than people.
[The National War Council’s] original  plan was to kill policemen, former Weatherman Howie Machtinger told Burrough—hence the bombings in Berkeley and San Francisco, which I doubt would count as activism intended to end a war.
He’s right—but the Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and killed a minimum of a million and a half people, wouldn’t end for six more years (technically four more years in terms of direct US involvement). What activism would end a war, whether the Vietnam Waror any other? Perlstein has no answers.
9. The moral of Days of Rage, for Perlstein, is to avoid extremism with its “radical narcissis[m]” and “Dostoyevskian fantas[ies] of communion,” whether of the right (abortion-clinic bombers and Timothy McVeigh), the left (Weatherman and the BLA), or the international extreme (ISIS and the Tsarnaev brothers), none of whose extremism is explained in terms of any material causes beyond “political ends” (somewhere, 1950s consensus culture is awakening in its grave to denounce totalitarianism again).
It’s also to criticize political correctness, I think, maybe, or white guilt, wherever that may exist these days (Charleston? Baltimore? Boston University?), or possibly just Bill Ayers:
Another lesson is about the counterproductive patterns of thought and action recognizable on the left today, such as the notion that there is no problem with radicalism that can’t be solved by a purer version of radicalism, or that the participant in any argument who can establish him- or herself as the most oppressed is thereby naturally owed intellectual deference, even abasement, or that purity of intention is the best marker of political nobility. These notions come from somewhere; they have an intellectual history. The sort of people whose personal dialectic culminated in the building of bombs helped gestate these persistent mistakes.
But as Burrough suggested to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross back in April, isn’t it ridiculous to think black people in America once wanted to organize and fight back against police brutality by any means necessary?
BURROUGH: There was a sense that it was really violent, black rhetoric – especially that emanating from the Black Panthers – that informed most of the people that initially went underground – the first group, the Weather Underground and the second, the Black Liberation Army. And African-American militants at that point had an array of complaints, but chief among them, first among them, was always police brutality, that policemen throughout America largely were able to kill black men, black Americans, with impunity. And, you know, we quote people from Weather saying look, we wanted to do what the Panthers wanted to and what the Black Liberation Army wanted to do later and that is kill policeman, to, quote, “fight back.” It seems amazing now, but that’s what they intended to do.
What a long strange trip it’s been to post-racist 2015!
10. Outsiders who were born too late (like me) can only interpret the motives of other outsiders who were born too late (like me) who interpret the motives of those who tried to change the world, some of whom are still trying; maybe the point is to eat it.